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Child Custody Office

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Starting a Custody Case

What is a Custody Action?

A custody action is a law suit, usually between separated parents, over legal and physical custody of their minor child.  State law authorizes court to decide whether one or both parents make decisions regarding the child,  with which parent the child lives (custodial parent), and how often the child visits the other parent (non-custodial parent).

How do I file for custody of my child?

If you have an attorney, he or she will file the necessary papers and obtain a date for your court appearance. If you do not have an attorney, you may file pro se (on your own) either using forms available at the courthouse or on line. The Family Court Office provides assistance to fill out the forms Monday through Friday from 12:15 pm until 3:00 pm. Forms are also available at www.palawhelp.org

Can I start a custody case in Lehigh County?

Jurisdiction in a custody case is based on where the child resides.   Except in unusual circumstances, the child must have lived in Lehigh County for six months immediately prior to filing.  If the child is less than six months old and has lived here most of his/her life,  Lehigh County will probably have jurisdiction. 

Who can start a custody case?

A person entitled to start a legal action must have “standing.”  The Custody Act permits a mother or father to file against the other parent.  Grandparents can file for custody when the parents of the child are separated or when parents who live together are neglecting the child. 

What if the mother or father is under the age of 18?

State rules permit a minor parent to file or defend a custody case without the requirement of appointment of a guardian for the minor parent. 

Can people file a custody action over an unborn child?

No. The child must be born.

How much does it cost to file for custody?
What if I can't afford to pay the filing fee?

A party receiving public assistance or who is otherwise without financial resources to pay the costs of litigation may be entitled to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP).   A party  fills out a poverty petition stating all of his/her income, assets, liabilities and debts.  The petition will be sent to a judge for review and decision. 

Can I fill out forms on the internet?

Yes. Go to Self Help

What information do I need to start a custody case?

A custody complaint requires the name and address of mother, father, and the child, and the child's addresses for the last five years.

What is service?

Service is delivery of the documents to the opposing party. Rules of Court specify how service can be made. Proof of service is required before any court order will be entered.

What I do if I don't know where the other party lives?

You must try to locate the other party by asking family or friends, checking with the post office, or looking at social media. If you cannot find the other party, you can request an Order for Special Service by filing a petition.

Court appearances and steps in a Custody Action

What is mediation?

Mediation is a meeting with the parties  and a trained professional who helps people reach an agreement with each other.  If an agreement is reached, it becomes a written court order.  Mediation is generally one hour long.  Lawyers and children do not participate in mediation.

What is a custody conference?

A custody conference is a meeting with parties, their attorneys and a custody hearing officer who is an attorney employed by the court.   The hearing officer establishes the issues in the case, explores settlement options, and determines whether the case proceeds to trial.

If we don't reach an agreement, do we go to a judge?

When the issues in a case involve questions of legal custody (who makes decisions) or primary or shared physical custody (where the child lives), the case is decided by a judge.  If the case involves partial physical custody, the custody hearing officer will conduct a hearing.   Contempt hearings are conducted by a judge.

Do I need an attorney for a custody case?

An attorney is trained in the law, and in court procedures, and can protect your valuable legal rights.  An attorney is not required, however it is highly recommended, especially for hearing or trial.

How Can I Find a Lawyer?

The Bar Association of Lehigh County Lawyer Referral Service provides a low cost consultation with a qualified attorney call (610) 433-7094 or LRS@lehighbar.org

How do I reschedule my mediation?

Requests for continuance of a mediation must be made on the Family Court Continuance Request form.

How do I reschedule my conference?

Requests for continuance of a conference before a hearing officer must be made on the Family Court Continuance Request form.

How do I withdraw my pleading (petition or complaint)?

You and the other party must complete a Praecipe to Withdraw/Discontinue By Agreement, and submit it to Family Court Administration, Room 325.    The court will take action based on the parties’ agreement. PDF MS Word

Can I speak to my hearing officer on the phone or write a letter to him?

No. Court Rules prohibit ex parte (one party only) communications with a hearing officer or judge.

Can my children come to the mediation or conference?

Children are never brought to mediation.  Children are not brought to a conference without permission of the hearing officer.  If you believe the hearing officer should speak to the children, you must write a letter to the hearing officer stating the reasons for your request, and send a copy of the letter to the other parent.  The hearing officer will review the request and respond.

When an Order exists

If we have an order and now there is a PFA do I still get my visits?

It depends on what is included in the PFA.  If the PFA supersedes the custody order,  follow  the PFA.   If not, then follow the custody order.

What if the other party is not following the Court Order?

You can file a Petition for Contempt stating the alleged violation of the existing order.  You may request mediation or a conference.  .

Can I call the police if the other parent doesn't follow the court order?

The police generally don't get involved in custody disputes unless specifically required
by the Order. If the other party isn't following the order you can file a petition for contempt.

How do I change my custody order?

 You must file a Petition for Modification stating what you want changed, and why you want it changed. You may request mediation or  a conference.   If there is no agreement, the case will be scheduled for hearing before a hearing officer or judge.

How do I go about closing my custody case?

Both parties must complete a Praecipe to Withdraw/Discontinue By Agreement of the Parties requesting that either the case be discontinued, or that the prior order remain in effect. PDF MS Word

What happens if I don't take the COPE program?

You can be found in contempt by a judge and your visits may be restricted.

What if the other parent and I have an agreement and want a court order?

You can submit your agreement on a form available in Family Court Administration, Room 325. The agreement must be signed by both parties, the signatures witnessed, and the form submitted to the Family Court Administration. The agreement will be sent to a judge and, if approved, an order will be entered.

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